FIFA, Adidas, and Marina Abramovic

Above is an Adidas-sponsored re-performance of a collaboration between artists Marina Abramović and Ulay. The original work was part of a long series of experiments in the possibilities of relation-in-performance. Many of those performances had strong durational elements to them: the 1978 performance cited here involved just the two of them moving stones around in buckets. Abramović outsources the work to 11 performers for this contribution to the Adidas World Cup campaign. We watch 11 people engaged in a pointless task. Seems pretty apt.

Folks in the art world are furrowing their brows.

The FIFA/Adidas/Abramović collaboration is grotesque. But I don’t recall art critics frowning when Douglas Gordon and Philippe Parreno collaborated with Zidane—and Adidas, and La Liga—in their production, Zidane: un portrait du 21e siècle (2006). That work was only possible because Adidas saw it as good publicity. A reminder of this, for me: about five years ago, I tried to develop a program on experimental football cinema to propose to the Nike theater in Hollywood: the project fell apart because the Nike folks saw Zidane as an Adidas film.

I also don’t recall there being much irritation when Kehinde Whiley produced his 2010 advertisements for Puma. LACMA has been using that work all summer to advertise its exhibition Fútbol: The Beautiful Game. You will see this gorgeous ad for Puma’s “Africa Unity” kit on banners across Los Angeles. When male artists work with the commercial structures of football, folks in the art world enjoy the chance to feel like one of the guys. But when a woman does it, she’s whoring herself?

Kehinde Wiley, Samuel Eto'o (2010)

Kehinde Wiley, Samuel Eto’o (2010)

I’m not one to give Abramović a pass. But, excepting the medium (performance-based work v. visual art), I don’t see that she’s doing anything that much more awful than what blue-chip contemporary visual artists do pretty routinely. Why, review FIFA’s expensive special edition art posters. A complete set costs $6,589.99. There you will find an impressive (shameful!) array of artists who have licensed their work to FIFA.

Marina Abramović’s recent collaborations with dumb celebrity annoy most everyone in the neighborhood of performance art. The performance cited here was developed outside the charnel house. Her collaborations with Ulay were intense. In their own way, they could be painfully sincere. The deployment of that performance history and archive (with its serious affect, black and white photography, etc) within the World Cup economy is gross, but it is perhaps no more or less gross than anything else circling this particular drain.

Becoming an Image: In the Ring with Cassils

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Last night I got to see Heather Cassils perform Becoming an Image. In this performance, Cassils boxes a plinth-like column of clay to the ground. This is done in the dark: the audience enters the room, stands in a ring around the clay sculpture which is lit from above. The room goes black and the artist and photographer are led into the circle. Cassils then attacks the clay – at first you can’t imagine that Cassils will be able to beat it down before “gassing out.”

The photographer (last night it was Manuel Vason) circles Cassils, taking photographs every now and again. The flash illuminates the action – but you of course don’t see action. You only see a flash image, frozen for a second into the retina. It took me a while to conceptually separate my experience of those images from the images captured by Vason’s camera – the image the audience member sees feel distinctly photographic.

For the duration of the approximately 20 minute performance, you hear Cassils breath and grunt like a fighter in the ring. Or a fighter working the bag. It’s gym noise.

I am sure this performance feels very different for people who have boxing or a martial arts practice. Your body knows what is happening to the artist’s body – people train and fight in three-minute rounds for a reason. Punching and kicking is exhausting; these are a technically and physically demanding actions. The more you tire, the harder it is to keep your concentration and hold your form – and if you don’t do the latter, not only will you tire even faster, you’ll hurt yourself. Even if you are fighting a lump of clay. Especially if you are fighting a lump of clay.

Training on a bag is very very hard – and a bag gives to impact. So, if you have some familiarity with the sport this work cites, you know that it is intensely durational. You can hear it in the artist’s breathing – weezing, gasping. A solid block of clay not only doesn’t give – after the performance the artist told me that it seems to push back. It has its own resilience.

Becoming an Image is an engagement with the idea of the object, but it is also a very intense workout with the idea of the athlete, and with the image of the artist. What this performance does to gender – that’s not only another blog post, that’s a whole book.



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